Columns » Jay Barth

Optimism gap



I spent the second half of May immersed in two different Americas: one defined by pessimism about the future, and one decidedly optimistic. Those differences are at the heart of the dynamics that will determine the outcome of the 2016 elections.

For a week, I was in the Upper Buffalo National River region, mostly in Newton County, where debate continues over the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) near Mount Judea. But, what worked its way into every conversation with Newton County locals about the "hog farm" was the clear sense that the local economy, and with it a way of life, was dying and that there was no clear path for the creation of new economic opportunities in the area.

While my fundamental concern about the CAFO' environmental impact was reinforced, I began to understand why locals disproportionately favor the project, adding a layer of complexity to the hog farm debate. First, the operation— and its handful of jobs — brings with it the faintest glimmer of hope. Moreover, many feel that control of their futures was taken away by "outsiders" (both the National Park Service and environmental activists) when nationalization of the river first occurred; the current hog farm battle represents an opportunity for local "insiders" to send a message to those "outsiders." Economic pessimism is at the core of locals' desire to reassert some control about what happens in the county.

I transitioned from the natural beauty of Newton County to an academic meeting in the Boston area, spending most of my time in the neighborhood around Fenway Park. Fenway traditionally has been a gray, underdeveloped area of the city, but its sky is now filled with cranes bringing mixed-use high-rise buildings to life. The current economic recovery coincides with a renaissance of American cities, and an area like Fenway, where that recovery is most tangible. American cities, including Boston, face real challenges (inequality, educational inadequacy and distrust of the criminal justice system). Still, a fundamental optimism permeates contemporary urban life in the United States.

There is an optimism gap between rural and urban America. The American Communities Project breaks the country's 3,000-plus counties into 15 categories. Like most of its neighboring Ozark counties, Newton County falls in the "Working Class Country" category (others in that part of Arkansas fall in the "Evangelical Hubs" category). Boston's Suffolk County, of course, is categorized as one of the "Big Cities."

Gallup has employed the ACP categories to use its trove of opinion data to tell the story of attitudes in those different types of counties, including perceptions of how the U.S. economy is doing. Those counties with the greatest sense that the American economy is in full-scale recovery: the "Big Cities." The two most pessimistic categories of counties (with nearly two-thirds of residents seeing the economy as still on the decline): the "Working Class Country" and "Evangelical Hubs." Based on my last two weeks, both of these perceptions have grounding in reality.

This comparative optimism and pessimism has major electoral implications. If one is feeling optimistic about her economic present and future, the strong tendency is to be risk-averse and to support a candidate promising to continue the policies that have led to those positive outcomes. If one is feeling deeply pessimistic, there is a great desire to try a different course, no matter the risk. (Donald Trump easily won the March primary in Newton County and Newton was also one of only two counties in the state won by Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton.) There is no candidate who personifies "throw the baby out with the bath water" like Trump.

More Americans now live in urban centers than in rural America. But megacities do not make up a majority of the country's population. Therefore, once again, it will be in the suburbs where the presidential election and control of the U.S. Senate will be decided.

As the folks at the ACP point out, all suburbs are not alike. The residents of "Urban Suburbs"— those adjoining America's megacities along with places like Pulaski County that mix urban and suburban areas — are quite optimistic, according to Gallup. Those in what the ACP terms "Middle Suburbs" and "Exurbs" (suburbs more disconnected from urban life) veer in a more pessimistic direction. It is those counties where Trump ran up margins during GOP primaries across the country and where he finds fertile turf for the fall.

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